Where was Lucien when it mattered?

It’s almost as if he’d never been in charge.

First, Lucien Bouchard breaks his years-long silence to say the PQ is hopelessly misguided—on sovereignty, on the economy, on identity. Then he says Quebec is starving its universities by capping tuition. I can’t be the only one waiting for the other shoe to drop. (Jamais deux sans trois, and all that.) But whether or not he completes the trifecta, none of it really matters. Bouchard is hardly the white knight Quebec conservatives would like him to be.

The problem with Bouchard’s criticisms isn’t that they’re hypocritical—they’re not—nor that they’re fundamentally wrong. It’s that they’re anachronistic.

On tuition, Bouchard is criticizing a freeze on fees his own government declared in 1997. Moreover, he’s doing so more than two years (!) after Charest lifted it, however meekly, by imposing $100/year increases. The debate on tuition may very well be a necessary one, but Bouchard and his fellow retirees are jumping in with both feet only now that they know the water isn’t toxic.

But it’s Bouchard’s statements on the PQ and the sovereigntist movement as a whole that seem especially dated. Since he stepped down in 2001, not a single PQ leader has backed away from his insistence the party wouldn’t win a referendum even if they managed to convince Quebecers it was a good idea to hold one; they’ve just changed the way those reservations are phrased. Whereas Bouchard was waiting for “winning conditions,” Bernard Landry wanted “moral certainty” and André Boisclair wouldn’t use the R-word at all, calling it a “public consultation.” It was Pauline Marois who finally absolved herself and her successors of the responsibility to hold a referendum as soon as possible by changing the party program.

And while I think Andrew overstates* Bouchard’s affinity for ethnic nationalism, Bouchard sure did wait a while before delving into the identity debate. Now, he’s effectively telling everyone to calm down long after they’ve already done so. (Calm, of course, being an entirely different state of mind than rational.) Sure, the PQ has since pushed a reprehensible bill that would, among other things, bar non-Francophones from running in local elections. But where was Bouchard when the reasonable accommodations stuff was truly ugly? After all, it was the PQ’s shocking inability to formulate a coherent response to the reasonable accomodations crisis that led to its disastrous result in the 2007 election. If ever there was a breach for Bouchard to step into, that was it.

What Bouchard seems to be pining for is a re-hash of the ADQ that’s been stripped of nutjobs—a small-c conservative party with nationalist accents. And who knows, Mario Dumont may very well have welcomed Bouchard’s help in legitimizing the ADQ before it went belly up. But that’s just it—we’ll never know, because Bouchard wasn’t interested in pushing those policies when they were at their most viable.


*Granted, Bouchard’s remark about Quebecers being “the white race” with one of the lowest birth rates was indefensible. (Bouchard’s actual words, for the record, were the following: “Do you think it makes any sense that we have so few children in Quebec? We’re one of the white races that has the fewest children. This doesn’t make any sense and it says something—it says we haven’t solved family-related problems.”) But it’s a tad rich to single out catcalls of vendu (sell-out) to Jean Chrétien as a bow to ethnic demagoguery. As if instances of federalists and sovereigntists calling each other things like “traitor” were a rare occurrence.

Besides, Bouchard’s record on ethnic politics is hardly a monument to intolerance. Two events stand out: in 1997, Bouchard declined to re-impose a ban on English-language advertising in Quebec, despite Parizeau’s campaign promise to do so and the resulting pressure from PQ members to live up to that promise; and in 2001, Bouchard staked—and eventually lost—his legitimacy inside the party in an internal battle with PQ hardliner Yves Michaud. (Bouchard formally censured Michaud for telling a radio host that Jews complain too much about their historical suffering.)